Review: ‘Harper’s Island’ on DVD
The notion of one of the major networks producing a limited run murder mystery was certainly intriguing. For thirteen weeks, we were going to watch members of a wedding party get offed, one by one, while trying to figure out who dunnit. Clearly, the network had high hopes for Harper’s Island, slotting it in on Thursday nights and promoting it heavily.
After three weeks, the show’s ratings were weak and the critical drubbing it received prompted them to dump the show on the less important Saturday nights, usually reserved for reruns or failed series. I recorded the first few weeks but before watching the episodes, I shrugged when I saw the show was essentially dumped. Unlike the victims, I received a second chance when the 4-disc DVD arrived from Paramount Home Video. The set, now on sale, works well watching the story unfold without commercial interruption and without waiting a week between installments.
The Island is where the rich summer and where the residents resent the wealthy and of course, the couple to be wed represent both sides of the equation. Henry’s best pal, Abby, returns to the island for the wedding, her first visit since the grisly murders that occurred years before, claiming her mother and causing a rift with her father, the sheriff. As the bridal party and extended family turn up for the festivities, a new series of murders begin, shaking Abby to her core.
Over the course of the series, we watch one person after another die in imaginative ways that speak more to the Freddy and Jason school of crime than your typical serial killer. You’re left to wonder what the victims might have in common or why these new deaths were happening. Meantime, the sense of foreboding permeates the island, paralyzing one and all.
On paper, it’s a cool idea. The execution, though, is where the series veered from clichéd to over-the-top and clearly, another draft was required. The Townies versus the Rich theme is a stereotype the producer make no effort to vary from to keep interesting. People go through the motions of resentment or envy and that’s a shame. The wedding party is largely a group of ciphers with barely any personality to distinguish one from another. There are exceptions, including the desperate Malcolm who does several questionable things throughout and totally misses his chance for romance.
Of these characters, the most appealing are the outsiders to the group,
Trisha’ friend Chloe and her boyfriend Cal. Both try to fit in with the
others with varying degrees of success and have such a lovely romance
of their own that their deaths are among the few to generate any real
Henry and Trish, the loving couple, have some real nice chemistry and
while we can see why their friends all came to celebrate, we’re not
sure why the friends had any relationship with the couple. There’s so
little characterization to tether them all to one another and that’s a
fault of the writers. The groomsmen, in particular, display a lack of
morals when a satchel full of cash turns up next to one of the dead
bodies. Largely, we get a lot of soap opera-worthy antics that just
take up space rather than develop the players or themes.
So, as a murder mystery, does it work? Yes, and no. You don’t really
know who’s behind it until the latter half of the tale and by then it’s
clear two people had to be involved. A nice red herring helps prolong
this reveal. The revelation at the end of episode 12 is a shock but as
things are explained in the finale, it also doesn’t ring true. The main
murderer’s motivations for the swath of death and dismemberment don’t
work in relationship to the actual acts. And in true Jason style, few
live to tell the tale and while one is clear from the outset, the
others are less obvious choices.
A big failing is that a psychic element is added that suggests
supernatural causes but the plotline is dropped halfway through, never
explained, and leaves you wondering. Having said that, much of that
thread revolves around the young Madison, played by Cassandra Sawtell,
who steals every scene she’s in.
The set comes with the complete set of webisodes, Harper’s Globe, from
web veterans EQAL , and starring Melanie Merkosky, their own
lonelygirl15, The story here features reporter Robin who has eerie
adventures on the island leading up to the bridal party’s arrival and
the very first death in the opening episode. It’s not very good nor
does it really tell us much to enhance the island’s identity. Other
features include a nice featurette on the show’s casting, and episode
by episode vignettes on the making of the series. There are short bits
asking the cast and crew who they think did it (since no one got to
read those scripts until shooting) and then a bit on the poor producer
who had to tell the cast member they were slated to die in the new
episode. Most episodes have deleted or extended scenes that are
interesting, especially the lengthy ones from the third episode.
Overall, a nice but seriously flawed try.